By Michael C. Bender
For two weeks, bullets pierced two dozen cars driven through Detroit's suburbs as police puzzled over who was firing. Unlike most states, Michigan has a tool that helped lead to an arrest: a pistol registry.
Without that database of buyers and sellers, police said, the investigation would have taken longer, more people might have been injured or someone might have been killed, before they arrested an unemployed geologist on Nov. 5 in connection with the crimes.
The story of what worked in Michigan — one of six states that require registration of at least some types of firearms — is also the story of what isn't happening elsewhere. Gun-rights advocates, led by the National Rifle Association, have successfully campaigned against firearm registries across the United States. Last year, they narrowly lost a bid to eliminate Michigan's.
"The NRA has been extremely effective at guarding their patrons, the firearms industry, from having to provide data by consistently ginning up a fear that the federal government is going to come for your guns," said Mark Jones, a former U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent who is a senior law-enforcement adviser at the University of Chicago Crime Lab. "It slows down investigations in a profound way."
Gun registries are just one area in which the NRA, the nation's largest pro-gun lobby, has persuaded federal and state lawmakers to block information that might help prevent crimes, solve them or inform policy making. The Fairfax, Va.-based NRA helped persuade Congress to make it tougher to study illegal firearm trafficking, stymie scientific research on shooting deaths and create restrictions that force U.S. law enforcement to record gun sales on microfiche.
The debate over data is intensifying as President Obama seeks new gun-control laws following the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The president's plan calls for using firearms information in new ways, including a proposed law requiring background checks before gun sales and a directive to research causes and prevention of violence.